Just a master and a mrs*

I am surrounded by overachievers. The starters of clubs and winners of awards. Speakers of several languages. The top students of their grad school and law school. Socially conscious, dedicated, and to top it all off, also balanced in their lives and wonderfully kind.

I didn’t meet them in some high-pressure college classroom or a “How to Bring Peace to the World and Cure Cancer by the Time You Are 20” club meeting. No, most of us met in elementary school, which was composed largely of immigrants and aboriginal students. For most of us English is our second language and though we are firmly in the category of middle class, we are of the townhouse-and-one-old-car-with-little-money-in-the-bank type of middle class. I’m mentioning this only to make the point that we didn’t have the guidance of parents or other family who had been there and done that when it came to higher education and professional life, at least in Canada. Our road to career success wasn’t paved or clearly marked. We needed each other.

I arrived at this elementary school in grade six from Finland and right from the first months when I still had my “funny accent” I knew I had met some pretty special people. We found a few more friends in early high school and since then, our small and determined group of girls has been supporting each others’ over-achieving with enthusiasm and gusto, pushing the bar higher on education, citizenship, friendship.

Now, after more than 16 years on this road, the destination is still a little vague. It’s not money; we’re all pretty committed to feeding our passions, be they environment, health, human rights, learning, or mental health, and the thing with passions is that they don’t usually pay that much (are there people who are actually passionate about credit derivatives?). We are all operating under the assumptions that if you do what you love the money will follow, and also most importantly, that we really don’t need that much money. What we need is to reach that ever coveted True Potential.

The problem is I ran out of gas a couple of years ago and just decided to pull over. I wanted to own a home and marry my boyfriend of a decade already. I wanted to go to work nine to five. I wanted to fill my evenings and weekends with leisurely walks, shopping, exercise, cooking, and indulgent television instead of juggling an eternally tight schedule of studying and working to pay the bills.

I still had enough in the tank to keep me working hard through my masters and I did well. It earned me a good job. Not exactly a job that keeps my brain dancing each day, but a good job with challenges and rewards that usually doesn’t follow me home at the end of the day. I enjoy my field but to say I’m passionate about it – where passionate really means devoting much of my life to research, beginning with spending the next 4-5 years buried in books to earn the credential that would truly grant me entry into the exclusive club of scientists – well to say I’m that kind of passionate would be a lie. A really big one. In fact the thought makes me gag a little.

I enjoy our home, our free time, our relative material comfort. I am doing work I care about. But as I watch my friends continue to slog forward, I still wonder if this decision to stop here will come to haunt me. I worry that eventually, perhaps when the kids that I don’t even know yet if I’ll have get to be older, this will no longer be enough to satisfy me.**

But I’ve made up my mind and my PhD gag-reflex tells me I won’t be changing it for a long time. So the question becomes, how do I disengage from this powerful influence in my life, this current of ambition that has carried me along for years, and stand proudly on my own accomplishments without feeling like I’ve been left behind?

How do you think your friends have influenced your choices in life? Are they still influential?

*I actually prefer to go by Ms. and wikipedia tells me I can, but apparently no one else in the world reads the wikipedia entries on titles. It’s good stuff I tell you.
**Yes, going back to do my PhD later in life is a distinct possibility, but the answer can’t possibly be that simple because then what would I have to fuss about now?? Fussing is mandatory for twenty-somethings.

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Posted on January 12, 2011, in Life and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. First of all, I just got a wedding invitation addressed to me as “Ms.” I was grateful for that.

    Second of all, damn, I wish I had gone to your elementary school!

    And third, this is the kind of question that keeps me up at night. Stepping away from something can feel like a failure, especially when you’re still standing next to these ladies who keep reaching for ever-greater heights. Choosing marriage can make you feel even weirder — at least in my case, it did — because it’s like you’re reverting to a traditional role versus an ambitious one. I think that internal doubt it particularly unique to women our age, too.

    It takes a lot of confidence to continue to feel pride in your life choices. My very closest friends have divergent backgrounds — one is an artist, the other a historian who’s published books — so I don’t feel like I need to keep up with their role call of accomplishments per se. But they indirectly encourage me to be smarter. To learn about things I might not have pursued otherwise. To broaden my base of knowledge. And honestly, I think the little things I’m doing now, even in my so-called waking sleep of marriage and 9-5 job, can have as much value as something concrete and tangible, like another degree. I still push myself to be my best self possible. I guess the difference is that it can’t be measured in terms of grades and coursework.

    • Yeah I think you hit it on the head with the lack of concrete, tangible outcomes. All this other stuff we do is obviously important and valuable too, it just doesn’t come with a certificate you can frame at the end. Just have to learn to see and appreciate their value…

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